New Haven attorney Stephen Saltzman talks about his experience with anti-Semitism and prejudice.

Stephen L. Saltzman was at New York University, almost done with his studies in a tax law program, when a well-meaning Irish Catholic instructor invited him to interview at a large Boston law firm where he worked.

But when Saltzman got to Massachusetts, there was no interview. Nor would there be.

The reason had nothing to do with his grades, his attitude or his potential. It had everything to do with his last name.

It was 1962, and Saltzman, who is Jewish, was knocking on the door of a firm run by Protestant lawyers.

"Bob McDonough, who flew in every Saturday from Boston to teach a course, knew I was thinking about Boston. So he invites me up for an interview to his firm in Boston, and I get up there, and he apologizes.

"He says, 'I really made a big mistake. This firm isn't ready for Saltzman; it hasn't digested McDonough.'"

McDonough was Irish Catholic, and that was almost as bad as being Jewish to some of these large law practices, Saltzman said.

"He was the first non-WASP in the firm … and he was having a tough enough time getting comfortable in that firm."

But McDonough did send Saltzman to a friend of his, a tax lawyer in New Haven, where Saltzman would begin a career that has lasted more than a half-century.

Religious liberties were written into Connecticut's constitution in 1818, 27 years after the federal Bill of Rights assured freedom of religion. But laws alone could not guarantee the end to outright bias, harassment or restrictive behind-the-scenes practices that shut out Jews or other religious minorities from living in certain neighborhoods, playing at certain golf courses, working at certain jobs. The faith-based discrimination Saltzman recounted was outside Connecticut, but the battle against religious intolerance knows no state boundaries.

Connecticut's Gold Coast was the backdrop for the Oscar-winning 1947 movie on anti-Semitism, "Gentlemen's Agreement." Just this month, UConn researchers reported on studies that suggest religious references on a resume can hurt a candidate's chance of getting a job in both areas studied, the South and the Northeast, with a particular bias against Muslims.

It Was 'A Shocker'

In a recent interview in his law office at Brenner, Saltzman & Wallman, in New Haven, Saltzman, now 77, said anti-Semitic hiring practices were not uncommon at the large law firms back then. NYU classmates had similar stories.

One, named Grossman, who had attended both Brandeis University and Boston College, was told flat out that his "kind" wasn't welcome to apply. Another Jewish classmate went to Lubbock, Texas, for a job and was asked if his wife was Jewish too.

"My situation wasn't unique," Saltzman said. "We were trading stories of the experiences we were getting. That's what got me interested in the ADL. They were the one organization that was standing up not just for Jewish rights but rights of all."

The ADL, or Anti-Defamation League, had a regional office in New Haven and does to this day. By 1964, Saltzman was an active member. He still is, and served a stint as board chairman. He is also a past president and a past chairman of the Greater New Haven Jewish Federation.

Before he was turned away in Boston, Saltzman had not been oblivious to anti-Semitism. As a child in Providence in the 1940s, there were incidents.

"I grew up on the east side, which were a lot of Irish and Jewish. … Coming home from grammar school we'd cross paths with the kids from Holy Name, and they were all rip roaring over 'Christ killers' at Easter time. … They'd pick a fight. Walking home, which was only five, six blocks, and you'd end up in a fight or running from a fight."

"So I had a little of that experience, but nothing that I felt would shape my life or anything like that. But what occurred coming out of the NYU tax program was a shocker."

Over the years, Saltzman went on speaking engagements at men's clubs and other groups about ADL publications with names like "Danger on the Right," "Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism," and "Some of My Best Friends." In 1993 he was awarded the regional ADL's "Torch of Liberty" for outstanding work.